A Postcard from Salamanca
Esto es lo más terrible de los muertos:
que la vida los cubre y los absorbe.
. . .
Y esto es lo más terrible de los muertos:
que se paran de pronto entre las cosas.
–Rafael Guillén, “Gesto final”
Frog squatting on a human skull,
the skull carved in the stone façade
of the university where Fray Luis de León
once taught, who spent five years in jail
for the crime of taking the Song of Solomon
from Latin to castellano.
Who, upon his release, is said to have begun
his next lecture, As we were saying
yesterday . . . The benches where his students
concentrated or nodded off
or dug their names into the wood
nearly five hundred years ago,
still there. I thought my father, old professor,
might want to know I’d seen the way
patience seems to linger in such a place,
how sense persists.
But the card I meant to send from Salamanca
said, I’ll probably see you before you read this.
Postcard on the hotel nightstand, clothes
in a heap on the chair, I woke early,
and in the shower’s hot water I thought
again of my father: the way
he would always wait for me
to rub him down with his towel,
the way he would grip the chrome safety
bar with both hands, dripping,
enduring those moments. Bent image
in his mirror, kinked fingers, fierce
tremor, crooked spine. And in that steam-filled room
I knew right then
he would never read the card I had written.
Washed in the noise of Spanish TV news,
I rushed downstairs to retrieve e-mail
and found two messages saying my father
had fallen, he was all but gone.
What remains so important for the living
to do? I drifted downtown
with the pedestrian river, eddying around
every shop entrance, every window,
my reflection sliding over whatever was in it—
shoes, soccer balls, Spanish hams, olives,
tourist junk, tee-shirts, recuerdos de Salamanca—
until I ran aground, bought
a black decal of the frog squatting on a skull,
emblem of human failing,
or good luck if you could find it
in the wall where it was carved.
My luck? My father was dying—As we were
saying yesterday—his sentence interrupted.
In restaurant windows people ate and drank,
apparently feeling what they were
supposed to feel. Caught in the same glass,
I floated past them
on my father’s vast absence,
a final gesture, a last kiss
folded in the wallet of my loss.
In my pocket, the postcard’s river
repeated trees, a single cloud and blue sky
on water still as patience, making sense,
pausing at a weir before it spilled over, white,
the city behind it—peaked roofs, tiles,
cathedral spires, stone on stone—standing its ground.
Is it safe to say relief now? Old wall,
my father down, and no more carving on him?
Whatever built or broke him, done?
Intricate façade all finished and worn away?
Gone to sand? I am not sorry.
What pulled me from my room that morning
could have been simple coincidence,
but I took it as a signal,
the very moment he let go,
took it as a gift, his finally giving up.
His stopping so suddenly
in the midst of events, letting others
cover him, take him in—the most
terrible thing—lo más terrible de los muertos.
But also the most forgiving,
forgivable, this helplessness.
This interrupted moment—
what remains so important
for the living—how it simply ends.
The most terrible thing about the dead?
No one left to send or receive the mail.
No one there to witness
what my father said, at last.
Terrible, how no one saw him
climbing out of bed,
how no one finally caught him, falling.
and hauled his empty clothes away.
I boxed the postcard from Salamanca
along with his other correspondence.
What remains, after all,
so important for the living?
Is it safe to say Relief? What I keep,
what I cannot give away—that moment,
that interruption, when I knew
my father was beyond my saving him—
is my only souvenir.
Its emblem on the back window of my truck,
the frog squatting
atop a human skull, my black luck,
now follows me in the rearview mirror,
no matter where I might be driving.
Published in Nimrod International Journal 48.1, Fall/Winter 2004.